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The Case for Ecological Thinking in School Improvement

By Dr. Matthew Clay

In the last couple decades, a lot of engineering language has slipped into conversations about how we structure and operate schools. Whether focused on efficiency or system design, the shift has been difficult to miss. However, I would like to suggest that if we are to borrow a mindset of a scientific discipline for schools, it is ecology, not engineering that offers real potential.

Engineers study isolated components of a system to seek to improve that system toward a particular outcome. As they test the system by applying stress they look for weak points or failures and remove or replace those components with ones which can withstand the stress. If it is necessary to completely tear down and rebuild a system, engineers are willing to do so if it leads toward the desired outcome. Ultimately, engineers methodically isolated each component of a system until it works exactly as desired.

To borrow a phrase from my dissertation advisor Dr. Derek Gottlieb, this manner of thinking is dangerous because it is not obviously wrong. The idea of isolating aspects of school systems and evaluating each component until it perfectly contributes to reaching the desired outcome sounds desirable. However, schools fundamentally do not work like engineered systems. Schools do not exist in isolation to have components picked and pulled apart. Rather, all schools exist within actual communities, with human educators and students. The components cannot be isolated because they do not exist without the others. An individual is not a teacher without students. Similarly, a school is not a school without teachers. The components of school systems are so intricately woven together they cannot be separated.

That is not to say that a scientifically analytical approach cannot be beneficial to making schools more impactful in their communities. In fact, as a science educator, I think quite the opposite. Rather, I would like to suggest that the manner of scientific thinking from which we need to borrow is ecology. As a scientific discipline, ecology accepts as a given that all of the components in a system are connected. However, that is not to say that ecologists do not seek to make changes toward particular outcomes. In fact, this century has seen great ecological successes in the recovery of grizzly bears and wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Much like engineers, ecologists do make changes to systems to contribute toward particular outcomes. However, ecologists make those changes while also seeking to maintain the health of each of the other components of the system.

Although ecologists in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem sought to increase the number of grizzly bears and wolves, it would not have been a successful project if those increases came from decimating elk, deer, rabbits, and other predators. Rather, the long-term success of the project relied on the continued health of all components of the system. It is this key lesson that ecology can teach education: you have not successfully reached an outcome if you have not maintained the health of all of the components in the system.

Ecology did not know this lesson inherently. Rather, the discipline of ecology arose from watching the annihilation of untold numbers of species and habitats as humans applied new technology and engineering to nature without consideration of the long-term implications. In many ways it is a discipline born out of response to catastrophe. However, the lessons learned in ecology can prevent schools from having to pay the same dire costs to reach the same understanding.

Although the story of Edison’s 10,000 non-light bulbs might feel inspiring in seeking out the perfect school system, it is worth remembering that Edison did not have any sort of moral obligation to those non-light bulbs. However, schools do not deal in light bulbs, but in complex, living organisms. A misstep in engineering a system is just a cost of better understanding how the system works. However, missteps in engineering schools carry actual lived consequences for communities, students, and educators.

In seeking to not become a premature curmudgeon, I would be remiss to not offer practical steps forward in applying ecological thinking to school change. First, ecologists must accept that health for a system is equivalent to health of each of the components. Much as wolves are dependent on health ecosystems around them, a healthy school cannot exist apart from healthy teachers, students, and with healthy community relationships. Moreover, a school cannot be designed to reach a particular outcome if it does so at the expense of its own students, teachers, and community. Much like Erysichthon seeking to satisfy his own hunger by eating himself, schools that seek to make system changes at the expense of its members will ultimately arrive at its outcome to find it no longer exists. The school buildings will undoubtedly still be there, but the individuals and relationships that gave the school life may not. Although this commitment to maintaining the health of all those involved in a school might look different in different situations, it will include some manner of open communication and management of stressors placed on students, parents, and teachers.

Ultimately, the most meaningful step those involved in school leadership, from both the inside and outside, can take to apply ecological thinking toward improving their schools is to demonstrate meaningful care and appreciation for teachers, students, and parents. This must extend beyond a proclamation of care and be demonstrably apparent in actions. Especially in an unprecedented year of schooling, anyone with a long-term vested interest in the success of schools must seek to maintain the health of the components of which the schools are comprised. Students, teachers, and communities are not obstacles to school improvement. They are the schools.

Dr. Matthew Clay has spent the past nine years as a secondary science teacher, primarily in rural Western Kansas. He recently completed his Doctorate of Education from the University of Education and is now a faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education at Fort Hays State University. He lives in Dighton, Kansas with his wife and two sons.

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